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Toxic ‘zombie’ Cells Linked to Alzheimers by GRECC Researchers

Miranda Orr, PhD Miranda Orr, PhD

Video on KSAT website

GRECC researchers have identified that a fundamental aging process known to affect many cell types in the body, also plagues brain cells and contributes to Alzheimer’s disease. Prior research had demonstrated that this stress, called cellular senescence, is involved in many diseases of aging like cancer, cardiovascular disease, osteoarthritis and others. 

In their breakthrough study, researchers in San Antonio implicated, for the first time, that cellular senescence is involved with Alzheimer’s disease. Their discovery associated senescent cells with harmful tau protein tangles that accumulate in the brain of more than 20 human brain diseases. They first identified senescent cells in postmortem brain tissue from individuals with Alzheimer’s disease and then found them in postmortem tissue from another brain disease with tau protein tangles, progressive supranuclear palsy. These findings suggest that cellular senescence may be common among many brain diseases with tau protein accumulation.

This discovery was confirmed in four types of mice that model Alzheimer’s disease. The next step was to treat mice, equivalent to ~70-year-old humans with Alzheimer’s disease, with a combination of drugs to clear senescent cells. The mice that received the drug combination displayed brain improvements compared to mice that received a placebo (sugar pill) treatment. The treatment seemed to have stopped the disease from progressing. This was observed on brain MRI studies (magnetic resonance imaging) and careful postmortem examination.

The fact that old mice with disease benefited from the treatment gives the researches hope that this strategy might work in human patients that already have symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. A major next step for the team is to begin planning pilot studies in human patients. The drugs used in the study are approved for other uses in humans, so the team is hopeful they can move quickly to clinical studies.

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Dr. Miranda Orr, PhD